Staff Photo by Harrison Keely/Chattanooga Times Free Press Lee University recently purchased the First Baptist Church sanctuary and other property in downtown Cleveland, Tenn., for $5 million.
CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Lee University has agreed to purchase all of First Baptist Church’s downtown property for $5 million, pastor Allan Lockerman announced Sunday morning.
Lee University President Paul Conn said the college was never shy about its interest in the property during an interview with the school’s student news media April 13.
“It’s so obvious how many things we could do there,” he said.
The property would add 90,000 square feet to the campus — more than the university’s recently completed science and math complex, which measures 73,000 square feet. The science and math complex is currently the largest building on campus.
Lee University communication instructor Kevin Trowbridge said that the acquisition was an answer to prayer.
Mr. Trowbridge, a member of First Baptist Church, said the congregation broke into applause at the news.
Ever since the church broke ground for a new sanctuary, the 6.5-acre downtown property has been on the minds of school administrators, Mr. Trowbridge said.
“In my classes there has always been that speculation and that sense of excitement about the possibilities,” he said. “First Baptist is the most logical and probably the only opportunity for (Lee) to expand.”
Dr. Lockerman told the church that it would only be a matter of months before the new facility is open and a move occurs.
It may be a while before the university can fully utilize the space, Mr. Trowbridge said, noting that the school’s network and telephone infrastructure needs to be connected to the building.
Dr. Conn called the First Baptist Church building an “obvious” place to locate communication classes, adding that the large spaces would be excellent for broadcasting studios and set storage.
The building could also provide more room for music, he said.
“As much as I hate to think about it, (the school of) music is out of space,” he said. “People without a place to practice and teachers without a place to teach.”
If Lee University decides to begin an art major, the building also could be used for art classes, the president said. In addition to extra parking, the property also provides room for an athletic field, he said.
Dr. Conn said he took a tour of the main building in early April and noted that it was in good shape.
Dewayne Thompson, chairman of Lee’s business department, said that the decision was a positive one.
“I don’t think that anyone in Cleveland could look at a piece of property that Lee has bought and not say that it has improved,” he said.
Dan Howell, executive assistant to Bradley County Mayor Gary Davis, said that the Allied Arts Council and chamber of commerce had discussed buying the facility to use as a civic center and community theater, but that Sunday’s announcement was a positive one nonetheless.
“Lee University can certainly put the property to good use,” he said. “I’m glad to see it won’t be sitting there empty.”
Administrative staff members from First Baptist Church could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Mr. Trowbridge said he couldn’t wait until the end of the service so he could Tweet the news.
“A lot of people said that we could never sell a church,” he said.
Harrison Keely is an online breaking news producer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He also anchors the daily newscast. He joined the Times Free Press as a reporter in 2010. He previously served as managing editor of the Smoky Mountain Sentinel in western North Carolina and as a business reporter for the Washington Times in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Lee University in 2009 where he served as managing editor of the student news ...